When shopping around for feminine health and hygiene products, there are tons of labels and claims intended to persuade you to purchase, and make you feel more secure in doing so. But what do those labels really mean?
As a general rule of thumb, most gynecologists do not recommend douching, deodorants, or other forms of related products, since the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. In fact, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) warns that in regards to discharge or vaginal odor, “Sprays, deodorants, and douches are not recommended and may make things worse.”
Take for example, RePHresh Vaginal Gel. The product’s website states, “In general, gynecologists do not recommend the use of feminine hygiene products. But there are a few that make the cut. These are products with clinical testing that give medical professionals confidence that the product will help their patients.” It continues, “RepHresh Vaginal Gel is one of these few. In fact, many gynecologists throughout the US not only recommend RepHresh Vaginal Gel, but also give out trial samples to their patients who struggle with vaginal odor, vaginal discomfort and unbalanced vaginal pH.”
The product’s website does in fact encourage women to ask their medical professionals about vaginal pH itself, and whether the product is right for them.
Confused? We were too, so we did some digging. As a general rule of thumb, just because something is “gynecologist recommended” does not mean it is endorsed by the FDA, ACOG (which does not warrant or endorse any products) or any other official source.
For more information, we asked Dr. Susan Loeb-Zeitlin, ob/gyn at New York Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine for her take. Since “gynecologist tested,” is ambiguous at best, she says, “While I am not 100% certain, I believe when something says ‘gynecologist-tested’ this is just someone endorsing the product for which they receive compensation.”
According to Refinery29, endorsements usually happen like this: "A company will hire a gynecologist, pay them a lot of money, and say something along the lines of, 'Give this to five patients and see if their vaginas explode,' Dr. [Lauren] Streicher says (yes, that last bit is probably hyperbole). 'If they come back and say, Nope, no vaginas exploded, great; it's 'gynecologist-tested.'"
Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin cites a statement from ACOG’s committee opinion from August 2017 which reads, “ACOG does not guarantee, warrant, or endorse the products or services of any firm, organization, or person. Neither ACOG nor its officers, directors, members, employees, or agents will be liable for any loss, damage, or claim with respect to any liabilities, including direct, special, indirect, or consequential damages, incurred in connection with this publication or reliance on the information presented.”
A part of being an informed consumer also includes understanding the differences between a marketing study, and a scientific study. For this, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says, "One should look at who is sponsoring and financially supporting the study. Check to see if it's the company producing the product, or if it is purely academic."
Additionally, it's important to focus on the issue of pH, and keeping it in balance, while questioning the need for specially marketed vaginal care items as well. Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says it is not necessary to douche, explaining, "the body should adjust itself," while adding that perhaps some oral probiotics might be able to help maintain a favorable pH. (The normal vaginal pH is about 4.5, but can be altered by bacteria which can then create irritation and an odor.)
While shopping for products, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin explains it's best to use non-fragranced cleansers and to only use them on the outside, not inside the vagina. She also says, "Generally, the simpler the product, the better it is," while recommending to avid alcohols in products, and cautions people who have allergies to specific ingredients, as that can be irritating.
In regards to over-the-counter washes, douches, and other feminine care products, she adds, "Simple saline is probably harmless. Otherwise, these products may alter the pH and create an environment for unwanted bacteria to grow."
The bottom line? Do your research, and pay attention to the verbiage on the labels. Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin suggests that, “It is always good to look at a product's ingredients and if unsure, ask the pharmacist or your physician.” She also stresses that products should “be backed by evidence-based, unbiased studies and literature, not studies that are done by the pharmaceutical company themselves.”